June 13, 2013

Horse 1498 - Liberty Versus Safety

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
- Benjamin Franklin, quoted by @Predeceased, via Twitter, 8 Jun 2013

"I dare such a person who says this to drive down the wrong side of the motorway.
Total liberty = anarchy."
- Rollo75, via Twitter 8 Jun, 2013

"'Such a person who says this'? It was Benjamin Franklin, US Founding Father and all-round genius."
- Mark Colvin @Colvinius via Twitter, 8 Jun 2013

I would be a poor student of history if I was ignorant of the fact that it was Benjamin Franklin who made that quote. I would also be a poor student of history if I was also ignorant of the fact that the person who penned the self-evident truths that "all men are created equal" (Thomas Jefferson) was himself a slave owner and refused on all accounts to give them their freedom. So the fact that someone may or may not have been a US Founding Father, impresses me not.
Let me judge those words by their relative merit and utility.

Liberty - what is it?
The concept of Liberty in general terms is the ability to do what one likes, without freedom or interference. The Oxford English Dictionary has these instructive words:

Liberty (noun):
1. freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control.
2. freedom from external or foreign rule; independence.
3. freedom from control, interference, obligation, restriction, hampering conditions, etc.; power or right of doing, thinking, speaking, etc., according to choice. 

The problem with this rather hackneyed quote from Ben Franklin, is that it's almost impossible to work out the context in which it was said, some 200 odd years later. It is attributed to him but all of the sources I've found, seem to suggest that it was well before the time of the American Revolution (maybe as early as 1738 but definitely before his February 17, 1775 at the Pennsylvania Assembly).
Granted, the fact that the American people were not represented in parliament directly but under a bizarre concept called "virtual representation", might give rise to the quote being said in the context of an oppressed people (which would satisfy both definitions 1 & 2) but the situation in which most people now use it, is to justify their own actions; and it is this I find most troublesome.

This of course begs the question of "why shouldn't people be able to do what they feel like?". The obvious response is the basic human problem that there are seven billion of us on the planet and if everyone did just what they felt like, mass unpleasantness would break out.
The thing is that I don't even care how you choose to describe it either. Religious types might call it "sin"; economists talk of "rational self-interest"; still others might called it plain old "selfishness". I personally can not see how granting everyone absolute Liberty without it being hemmed in by some rules, regulations, prohibitions and incentives, would lead to anything other than whole scale anarchy and destruction of life.
The current events in Syria where government is waging direct war on its own people, in Bangladesh where companies engage in wage wars and failure to provide even basic safe working conditions and the ongoing consequences of people exercising their Second Amendment liberties in the United States against each other all show that we need protection from governments, that we need protection from corporations and that likewise we also need protection from individuals.

It should go without saying that the law itself is designed for the regulation, standardisation and protection of society. The reason why I made the comment about driving down a motorway, is that it is a very graphic example of how all three are achieved simultaneously. People might complain that the speed limit at any given point is too slow, or that other drivers are idiots but again this is merely the result of people's self-interest at play. It is quite rare for people to admit that they personally have been driving like a maniac or that the speed limit is too fast, except where there might be cause for someone that they care about (usually children) to be injured.

Since government as a disinterested third party is the arbiter, the legislator and regulator of the conditions under which people live, it also makes sense that they should be charged with providing the common institutions and instruments by which this occurs and by that, the legislatures, the judiciary and the police.
"We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right"
- Clause 39, Magna Carta, 1215

If the law is designed for the regulation, standardisation and protection of society, then it must follow that the best outcomes for society occur when people collectively give up some aspect of their absolute liberty to do as they please, for the common good and peace of all.

The words of Thomas Paine are instructive. It could be said that Thomas Paine's pamphlet "Common Sense" which was published in January of 1776, was one of the triggers of the American Revolution. Given the events in America in 1776 and France in 1789, it was a far more subdued Paine who wrote the "Rights Of Man" in 1791. This is a small excerpt:

It has been thought a considerable advance towards establishing the principles of Freedom to say that Government is a compact between those who govern and those who are governed; but this cannot be true, because it is putting the effect before the cause; for as man must have existed before governments existed, there necessarily was a time when governments did not exist, and consequently there could originally exist no governors to form such a compact with.
The fact therefore must be that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.
- The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine, 1791.

When any compact is entered into, an agreement is formed where the two parties bind themselves to perform or act in certain ways. Any agreement by definition requires the parties to set aside some portion of absolute liberty and to enter into a mutuality of obligation.

In all honesty, I would prefer to live in a society in which the people voluntarily do give up some portion of liberty to obtain safety. It's worth mentioning at this point that the United States which is more vociferous about the people's liberty with respect to something like the right to bear arms, is between 30-50 times more dangerous per capita when it comes to the consequences of the exercise of those rights (ie people killed by guns). Would Benjamin Franklin* suggest that the people of Australia are less deserving of liberty or safety?

I wonder.

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